Robert Duvall, one of today's finest screen actors, shines as the writer, director and star of The Apostle, his full-bodied portrait of a man whose church means everything to him.
It's one of the most authentic portrayals of religious life we've seen on the screen. Every "Praise Jesus," "Amen" and "Hosannah" comes straight from the heart. With an unhurried pace that makes it feel almost cinéma vérité in style, The Apostle follows a Pentecostal minister's journey from revered spiritual leader through his fall from grace and his eventual redemption.
Duvall, who ended up financing The Apostle himself, makes the film neither a satirical nor advocacy vehicle, but bares the very heart and soul of a fervent Southern Pentecostal evangelist. His Sonny Dewey is a sympathetic character who has an honest passion for his work and his faith. He is neither avaricious nor mercenary, as is so often the stereotypical portrayal of evangelists. The little money he seeks is only for his church.
Duvall's performance is captivating. He slips completely into the skin of this single-minded character who, motivated purely by love, brings the flocks to Jesus. As the film opens, Sonny has come upon a three-car accident. He runs through the wheat, Bible in hand, to minister to the barely conscious young passengers, urging them to accept Jesus. His ministrations so fill him with the spirit of goodwill that he sings all the way home.
Sonny is a good Christian man, but he's also human, with plenty of human flaws. He is a husband with a wandering eye and prone to long absences. But when he discovers his long-suffering wife (a gaunt Farrah Fawcett) in bed with another man, he sits in his car, gun on the dashboard, repeating to himself, "Though shalt not kill, thou shalt not kill."
After representatives of the church gather to tell him that his wife has manipulated church by-laws to take over his cherished ministry, he is devastated. His world is crumbling. Alone in his room, he screams to Jesus to give him peace. "I love you, Lord, I love you, but I'm mad at you!" he yells.
When he goes to the baseball diamond to pick up his two "beauties," as he calls his young son and daughter, and encounters his wife with her new suitor, he loses all control. In a moment of passion, Sonny wields the bat.
He knows that by committing this crime he has truly lost everything. Though he is still committed to doing God's work, he has no choice but to flee, and so he takes to the road, leaving his fate to Jesus. He gives up his name, going only by the initials E.F., and baptizes himself an apostle, letting the muddy waters wash away his sins. A serendipitous encounter with a one-legged fisherman leads him to a small town in the Louisiana bayou, where he quickly begins rebuilding his life, and establishing a new ministry. Before long he's brought his litany to the airwaves, refurbished an abandoned old church, and found his fold. In Sonny's words, "It's resurrection time!"
Duvall dominates The Apostle in a performance so rousing, you almost want to jump to your feet and shout. He chants, preaches, moves and literally dances, microphone in hand, spreading love, spouting Scripture, and praising the Lord. He's an intense man, burning with the spirit. It's understandable why his wife would just want out. In the small bayou town, he woos a shy secretary at the local radio station (Miranda Richardson) as ardently as he sings the Lord's praises. She accepts dinner, but politely refuses his overtures with, "You're too much."
Sonny is too much. He's an energetic, fast-moving man who, by his own admission, "quit school because I didn't like recess." For Sonny, life has no recesses. There's his One-Way-Road to Heaven: A church to build, an orphanage to plan, the poor to feed and souls to save. There is no rest for the driven.
Duvall walks a fine line in The Apostle. The role easily could have slipped into caricature, or could have been too intensely religious. Duvall, however, wisely chose to make Sonny a believable human being who, despite his faults, is not a hypocrite. He genuinely finds comfort and joy in his simple faith. His humanity and compassion for his mostly black congregation are touching. He accepts people for what they are. He's the real thing a man who's been preaching since he was 12 years old, a self-made apostle. He's a good man who, in a moment of passion, committed a terrible crime.
As Sonny delivers his a farewell sermon which goes on a bit longer than necessary in his newly-renovated church, his tears are genuine. He truly loves his church and his flock. All he does, he does for them. Evangelism is his life, and in his new church he has found his own salvation. It's rare to see a man so committed to something, and Sonny's passion can't help but move you. Duvall captures that passion to perfection. This is his film, and Sonny its center.
The secondary characters are just that, but they are nicely portrayed as well, from the dignified black minister (John Beasley) who befriends Sonny, to Billy Bob Thornton's redneck trouble-maker (even in a small role, Thornton is a major presence on the screen), to the rotund owner of the town radio station. They and others make The Apostle as much a slice-of-life portrait of a small bayou community as it is a character sketch of one man. Several minor characters are portrayed by the real people of Lafayette.
The community Duvall paints is one of people tightly bound by similar desires and needs. They're people who need to belong, who need to be part of something. Some of the women churchgoers get so caught up in the passion of the new minister that they can barely sit still. When Sonny begins shouting for Jesus, they're on their feet, literally bouncing with the joy of the "Holy Ghost Explosion." An old man plays his trumpet as the congregation claps and chants, little children dance and play their ukuleles. It's a true, interactive communion.
Duvall has brought the evangelical experience to the screen in an honest fashion that no one before him has managed. It's a tour de force nothing short of miraculous.